The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

IX
DE VRIES AND MENDEL: HEREDITY AND UNITS

THE GREAT MASS of yellow flowers in the corner of a fallow Dutch field glowed like gold in the warm light of the early evening.

Hugo De Vries ( 1848- 1935), professor of botany at the University of Amsterdam, noticed them as he passed nearby. He saw that the brilliant flowers, Oenothera lamarckiana, must have escaped from the adjoining park. This struck De Vries as a promising circumstance; it was, in fact, a situation of the very kind he was looking for. Perhaps these tall plants with their crowns of yellow blossoms might vary somewhat from the primroses from which they had come.

The Dutch botanist was a reverent admirer of the work of Charles Darwin and an advocate of the theory of evolution. But he was troubled about one major difficulty in the theory which had persisted even into the 1880s. It seemed to De Vries that there could be no question about Darwin's basic theory that "descent with modification is the main law of nature in the organic world," and yet how did the modification come about? Could natural selection acting only on the infinitude of small variations that occur in all individuals account for the wide differences between species and for the diversity of the living world?

As a botanist, De Vries knew that breeders could go only so far in working with individual variations. There was a limit to how pink a rose, how tall a plant, how hardy a bulb they could develop by crossing two varieties. They could never obtain anything new until some new and different character appeared in Nature to give them the material with which to work. Dar

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